Heather noticed her four year-old scratching the back of his head.
She recalled him doing it the night before and her heart skipped a beat.
It had been a late night with a hurried bath. They both fell asleep in his bed within minutes of lying down and she remembered how restless he had been. She remembered she had a dream about finding lice on him. She turned off the stove.
Harry twisted to look up at her as she walked up behind him. "I love you, mommy." He reached up asking to be lifted.
"I love you, too. I need to look in your hair." she said sharply as she pressed her fingers into his thick brown curls.
"Is it a tick? My head hurts."
As she lifted his hair, her fingers rubbed a lump. Deftly, she separated the hairs and saw the tiny brown sesame seed-sized parasite, a deer tick. She felt nauseous and guilty and thought, "How could I have forgotten to check him last night?"
It happens. Life gets busy and everyone forgets sometimes.
In our area, ticks are part of life and children are more likely to pick up a tick than you are, because they spend more time outside, more time in the grass and may not have the self awareness to notice and remove a tick when they first crawl on.
LIfe in the Hudson Valley means memorizing your child's freckles and moles, so your heart doesn't skip a beat 5 times a day.
- Scan your baby or child frequently during the day for small dark spots.
- Make a head to toe inspection for ticks every night, even if you are exhausted.
- Check in the hair, behind and in the ears, in the belly button, in skin folds, under the scrotum and between every finger and toe.
- Put on clean PJ's or clothes before bed every night. Ticks stick to fabric and can live on clothing for a few days.
The longer a tick is embedded, the higher likelihood of transmitting disease. A child who is sleeping is less likely to notice the tickling of a crawling tick.
Here is a commonsense approach to reduce your encounters with ticks.
The first is to stay out of tick-infested areas. Ticks are active any day the temperature is over freezing, even in January. There seems to be a lull in their activity during freezing temperatures and during the hot, dry months in the summer. These are times you can relax a little.
There are plenty of things to do and places to go that do not involve walking through leafy, tick infested areas!
In peak times, stick to swimming, municipal areas, carriage roads and bare rock areas with your babies and kids. If you must hike footpaths, go in the low peak times or consider traveling to the Adirondacks, which are still largely tick free.
If you are going through a tick infested area, wear long pants and sleeves, tuck your pants into your socks. When you are done, remove all your clothes and wash them. Take a hot shower or bath and check your children for ticks.
If you feel the need to use insect repellent, use it with caution.
Insect repellent should probably not go directly on your skin and never go on baby's skin, but it can be applied on clothing. Consider using Frontline or similar on your pets, but remember that all pesticides are hazardous, especially to little humans. If it kills bugs, it will harm you, too! You might reduce the months you use it, based on the weather.
Pesticides for ticks, known as acaricides, can reduce the number of ticks in your yard. They are relatively inexpensive and applied once, seasonally.
Essential oils are another way to repel ticks. Tea Tree, Thyme, Rosemary, Oregano, and Lavender are a few of the commonly recommended ones. Essential oils are more natural, but they are powerful and can also have negative side effects.
Make your home and yard safer by doing the following:
- Mow the grass frequently and closely around your house
- Remove leaf litter, and trash that may give rodents (one of the vectors) a place to nest
- Place a 3-ft wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between your lawn and wooded areas to restrict tick migration into your yard
- Stack wood in a dry area away from your house to discourage rodents
- Keep play equipment, decks, and patios away from yard edges and trees.
- Put up a fence to keep deer and stray dogs out of kid's play areas.
- Trim bushes off the ground and keep plants away from the house foundation to reduce rodent nesting areas.
- Dogs scare away deer and catch mice, cats (domestic and feral) catch mice, guinea fowl (and to a lesser extent, chickens) eat ticks.
In the words of Mad-Eye Moody of Harry Potter fame, "Constant Vigilance!"
Check your pets by combing with a fine tooth comb and examining them for crawling ticks before they come into the house. Use a bright light and reading glasses when looking for ticks. Keep pets out of bedrooms.
As your kids get older, they will probably develop a "creepy crawly" reflex and pull off ticks before they embed. Ticks are 'sticky' and need to be plucked off clothing and skin. If can be easier if you use tweezers or a tissue to grab the crawler. Because of this stickiness, ticks can invade your home on clothes, pets and backpacks. Drying on "high" for an hour will kill ticks on fabric items.
Tick bites can hurt or itch and that might be the first way you discover a bite.
If you do find a tick, grasp it firmly with tweezers, as close to the skin as you can. Pull steadily. Some people recommend a cork screw motion, but that is not necessary. Some people like special tick tweezers. After you remove it, check that you got the head, and if you didn't, go to the doctor. Clean the area with betadine, soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Calendula cream can sooth the itching and speed healing. Wash your hands and the tweezers.
When you remove an embedded tick, the squeezing usually kills them. If you normally don't kill insects, search your conscience for "Right Action" when it comes to ticks. At the very least, remove them from your daily paths. Flushing them down the toilet or dropping them in rubbing alcohol will kill them.
Watch the bite. The longer a tick is embedded, the bigger the reaction.
All tick bites turn red and infected looking. They often have a hole where the bite was. There are several tick borne infections besides Lyme disease, that are common in the Hudson Valley. Symptoms are fever, aching or headaches. A Lyme bull's eye may or may not be present.
If you are not sure how long the tick was embedded, go see your doctor, who will probably prescribe a course of antibiotics. The common treatment for a first time bite is 3 weeks of amoxicillan for babies and children. Adults may be prescribed amoxicillan or doxycycline, which is safe for breastfeeding mothers for up to 3 weeks.
Ticks are an unfortunate part of life in the Hudson Valley. The best way to handle them are avoiding them and constant screening for bites.